Arcturus – Arcturian

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Arcturus has been home to some of the Norwegian black metal scene’s most talented musicians for over twenty years now, with the band’s catalogue including albums that have ranked anywhere from being full-blown classics to admirable missteps. While many of you reading this may already be familiar with the history involved here, it’s certainly worth revisiting for a moment, just for the sake of accentuating just how much impact the sum total of Arcturus’ members have had over the years. The outside work of both current and former members of the band include classic albums from the likes of Ulver, Mayhem, Borknagar, Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon, and Ved Buens Ende among a host of others. Keeping all of that history and all of those related albums in mind, not to mention the considerable weight the Arcturus name itself carries, the expectations for Arcturian are understandably high, and maybe even unfairly so.

Thankfully, with only a couple of specific exceptions, Arcturian meets and even exceeds those expectations. Looking at the album in a general sense, the overall style fits in nicely as a melting pot of the entirety of the band’s history to this point, though there is a heavier emphasis on the symphonic black metal sound of Aspera Hiems Symfonia and The Sham Mirrors. In fact, it most closely resembles the latter album, if forced to choose one album to liken it to specifically.

Where Arcturian can lay claim to being better than anything the band has done since the 90s is in the overall quality of its songwriting. Many of the songs on the album contain hooks and moments that immediately bore into the listener’s brain. The vocals hooks all throughout album opener ‘The Arcturian Sign’ are up there with ICS Vortex’s best work in either Borknagar or Dimmu Borgir. The whole of his performance on the album sees him at his most adventurous, and much more often than not, his risks pay dividends. As the album progresses his singing ranges from soaring to melodramatic to unnerving, and plenty more besides.

The musical side of the band more than carries its share of the weight here as well. Whether you’re looking at smaller songwriting choices like the brief, but spiraling chord that pops up in the bridge of ‘The Arcturian Sign’, or big picture decisions, such as the juxtaposition of the wall of sprawling guitars and keyboard atmosphere against Hellhammer’s breakneck double kick work in ‘Angst’. Sverd’s work really gets a chance to shine as the focal point of ‘Game Over’ with both large, commanding string arrangements and prog rock-inspired keyboard leads driving the song throughout.

‘Crashland’, on a different side of spectrum, is one of Arcturus’ most immediately palatable songs to date. It abstains from many of the band’s more outlandish musical proclivities and replaces them with sprightly clean guitar lines, understated distorted guitars and hummable string accents. The song is still layered densely, but those layers are meant to strengthen simpler ideas, rather than intricately interact with each other.

Arcturus Arcturian

That’s not to say the album doesn’t have some issues. Specifically, the album suffers slightly from the inclusion of a couple of clunkers: ‘Demon’ and ‘The Journey’. That these tracks are the two to most heavily rely on electronica is no coincidence. The late 90s and early 2000s style chosen for the drum loops and keyboards in these songs fall into an unfortunate dead zone that feels too dated to be current, but not old enough to drum up nostalgic fondness, like the 70s and 80s John Carpenter-influenced music that’s become popular in recent years.

‘Demon’ is further hindered by a head-scratcher of a vocal performance. ICS Vortex tries a number of different things that are well outside his established range and forte, and almost all of them fall flat or come across as too cartoonish, even for a band like Arcturus, whose charm is partially indebted to its quirks and eccentricities. ‘The Journey’ on the other hand is less difficult to listen to, but it’s still a mess. The instrumental part of the song is based around half-baked acoustic guitar, while the vocals are so bogged-down with filters and delay that he sounds like he’s recorded his parts in diving equipment at the bottom of the ocean. It comes together as one big wash of semi-pleasant noise that leaves no lasting impression.

Even taking the two problematic songs into account, forty out of the album’s forty-seven minute running time finds Arcturus in as good a place creatively as they’ve been since the nineties. They’re playing to their strengths and coming up with songs as instantly memorable as anything they’ve ever released. With the amount of time between this album and Sideshow Symphonies, it’s difficult to gauge whether we’ll ever get another Arcturus album after this. Luckily, Arcturian works well in either role: that of the triumphant swansong, or that of an inspired first salvo of a new beginning.

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